The mayors of the three largest U.S. cities — whose combined 2.5 million schoolchildren are more than those of 44 states — joined U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan March 2 at American University to discuss education reform.
“You’ve picked the right university to host this very important event,” AU president Neil Kerwin said. “American University has for decades, through our School of Education, Teaching and Health, provided teachers for these great cities, provided professional development education for teachers of Washington, D.C., in all eight of our wards."
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, Los Angeles’ Antonio Villaraigosa, and Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel joined a panel convened by Duncan and moderated by Andrea Mitchell of NBC for a wide-ranging and frank discussion titled “Cities at the Forefront of Reform” at the Katzen Arts Center’s Abramson Family Recital Hall.
“All these mayors have showed amazing courage,” Duncan said. “This is probably the toughest issue they work on, all kinds of bumps and bruises along the way. But what we have here are people who get the urgency that nothing is more important. We want to hear what the challenges are. It’s my job is to listen. Whatever I can do, whatever my team can do — these are my customers.”
Duncan announced that large school districts will now be eligible to compete with states for “Race to the Top” grant money. The program rewards states with federal dollars for creating the conditions for education innovation and reform; achieving significant improvement in student outcomes; closing achievement gaps; improving high school graduation rates, and ensuring student preparation for success in college and careers.
Villaraigosa, in particular, hailed the decision. Despite their differing situations — Villaraigosa’s lack of control over his city’s school system chief among them — all the mayors and their superintendents, who joined them on stage for the second half of the event, stressed the importance of accountability for teachers, principals, students, and themselves.
“In the end we really need accountability data for the parents,” Bloomberg said. “The arrogance of the bureaucracies that say parents shouldn’t have data to know what to do with their kids is just astounding. We’re fighting through that. Everybody talks about accountability and evaluation systems across this country. It’s getting the data to those who need it to make decisions.”
In Chicago, Emanuel now publicizes his principals’ report cards.
“Ever since we’ve done that we’ve had an increased enrollment by principals in training programs,” he said.
With the unemployment rate for college graduates at just 4 percent, schools must hammer home the message to both parents and students that graduating from high school isn’t the educational finish line.
“There are no good jobs for a high school dropout, there are basically none if you just have a high school diploma,” Duncan said. “Four-year universities, two-year community college, trade and vocational training, that has to be the aspiration for every young person.”
“What is happening in our world today? Competitive jobs are getting automated out of existence, and jobs where you don’t have to be by your supplier or your customer move to the lowest priced part of the world,” Bloomberg said. “We’ve got to find ways to get people to stay in school and get degrees but to make those degrees and the skills they learn more relevant not to what the jobs used to be but what the jobs are going to be down the road. That is an enormous challenge.”
Bloomberg and Duncan disagree, however, on the role testing should play in helping school systems achieve those goals.
“We think there has been an overemphasis on testing under No Child Left Behind,” Duncan said. “Looking at increasing graduations rates, which is much more important, reducing dropout rates, making sure students are going to college. Test scores tell you a piece of something, but it’s always a small piece. We always emphasize multiple pieces.”
Testing, Bloomberg said, is a reality in all walks of life.
“We have a saying that ‘In God We Trust, everyone else has to bring data.’” he said. “This business of we’re teaching for the test is exactly what we should do as long as the test reflects what we want them to learn. If the test is can you read, yes, you should find out whether they can read by testing them. The tests that we do are in the children’s interests and the teachers’ interests. I know of nobody in this room that doesn’t get tested. You go to American University, you get tested. You (Andrea Mitchell) get tested, it’s called ratings. We get tested at the polls and with the press every single day. This argument that we shouldn’t find out whether we’re doing a good job is just ridiculous.”
Among the VIPs and national media in the audience were AU teachers and students, many of whom walked away impressed by the discourse.
“I loved [Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard’s] quote from a high school principal that ‘the Underground Railroad is no longer underground, it’s above ground and it’s a high-performing school,’” said Kim Tilley, a professor in the School of Education, Teaching, and Health. “I teach special education, and I think that’s a great message for my students. At American we have fantastic students who are dedicated and invested, but to have that sort of feedback from the field, just reinforcing and reminding that it’s a civil rights issue, it’s an economic issue, is great.”